Saturday, June 10, 2023

Talk is (Not) Cheap

Film: Women Talking
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on basement television.

My goal every year is to finish all of the movies on my Oscars list by the end of the year. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I’m buried in films on that particular list that I can watch—I need to average just one a month to finish in December, but I can be close to done by the end of next week. I decided to start with Women Talking for no reason other than the librarian who checked it out to me recommended it highly. Now that I’ve seen it, I get why she recommended it.

You would be forgiven for thinking at the top that this is a movie that takes place a hundred or more years ago. Instead, it takes place about a dozen years ago in a Mennonite community somewhere (likely) in Canada, since that’s where the book the movie is based on was written. It would also be completely understandable if you thought that Women Talking was based on a stage play and not a novel, because it very much looks like it could have been a play, and this film could be easily adapted for the stage. It also reminds me of the joke, "What was the Amish girl disfellowshiped?"

As the film starts, we learn of women in the unnamed Mennonite colony frequently wake up with visible wounds on their legs. You’d be right in thinking “sexual assault” is to blame here, and what we soon learn is that this is not a one-time occurrence. The women of the colony are routinely drugged with a livestock tranquilizer and assaulted (something that happened even to the children) and were then told that these things were committed by demons, spirits, or were mere products of their imagination.

A number of men are arrested and while the rest work on producing bail for them, the women, most of whom are uneducated and cannot even read, hold a vote to see what they will do. Their options are to forgive the men and go one as things have been, to stay in the colony and fight, or to leave. The options of staying and leaving end up tied, so a smaller group of women are tasked with talking out those possibilities and deciding on what the women will do. The are assisted by the colony’s teacher August (Ben Whishaw), the son of an excommunicated woman and a man who was unaware of the sexual predation happening at the colony.

This really is the entirety of the movie. Virtually all of the running time is the conversation between the women in the hayloft of a barn as they go back and forth determining what to do. Several of the women want to stay and fight because they can’t bear the thought of letting these crimes go unpunished. Others want to leave because it’s the only way to have a clean break from their past and everything that has happened. There are varying levels of anger and resignation at all of this, and varying ideas of what to do, including taking the children with them if they do leave.

On the surface, film unwatched, it would be easy to think of the lack of nomination for director Sarah Polley as being the typical Oscar nonsense about passing over deserving women for awards. That’s not the case here, though. While Polley certainly did a good amount of work, the main decision she made was setting up her camera and getting out of the way of her very capable cast.

And it is a capable cast. While Ben Whishaw is essentially the only male with a speaking role, this is a film that is loaded with plum role for women, none of whom were nominated for acting awards. Frances McDormand is one of the bigger names here, but she’s actually not in the film much. The bulk of the work is handled by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley.

This is not an easy sit, but very much a worthy one. For me, it’s a reminder of a few important truths—that power tends to corrupt those who have it, that corruption breeds more corruption and eventually all conspiracies come out. It’s a reminder that sunlight is the best disinfectant for this kind of corruption. It’s also a reminder that this kind of corruption breeds in environments where questions cannot be asked, and religious environments are a perfect example of that.

Women Talking isn’t the kind of movie that one enjoys because of the subject matter, but its fascinating to watch come together and slowly unwind.

Why to watch Women Talking: It’s “important filmmaking” at the highest level.
Why not to watch: Because religion poisons everything.


  1. I saw this film earlier this year and wow.... what a film. It pissed me off over what men could do in this remote community and I love the fact that it really went head on as I also love Sarah Polley's direction in this film.

    1. I agree--this takes on the issue very much head-on, and that's the right way to do it.